In what must have been an awkward, stilted encounter, Pope Francis held a closed-door meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Rome on Monday, ostensibly to discuss Christians in the Middle East, the Catholic community in Russia, and the Syrian civil war. We’re all for diplomacy and cordial relations, but considering the vast ideological distance between the two leaders on, well, everything, we’re curious how much headway they made, or how they even filled the silence during the 35-minute meeting. Did Putin try and convince the Pope of the merits of erecting giant statues of yourself? Did the Francis gently tell Putin that the Russian President isn’t supposed to be to the right of the Pope on gay rights? Did both yuk it up about how nice it is to lead a constituency without having to worry about being voted out of office?
Whatever the topics of conversation, Putin and the Pope had a long way to go to bridge the gap on Syria, the topic of the day. While Russia staunchly defends Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s right to slaughter his own people (as long as it’s not with chemical weapons), the Pope wants Putin and his allies to take a tougher stand against Assad. Last September, Francis told Putin as much, sending him a strongly-worded letter ahead of the G20 summit:
It is regrettable that, from the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, one-sided interests have prevailed and in fact hindered the search for a solution that would have avoided the senseless massacre now unfolding. The leaders of the G20 cannot remain indifferent to the dramatic situation of the beloved Syrian people which has lasted far too long, and even risks bringing greater suffering to a region bitterly tested by strife and needful of peace. To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution.
Sure, it’s technically an appeal to “each and every one” of “the leaders present” — but Francis addressed the letter to Putin, and Putin only. Considering Russia’s time-honored role as a roadblock to any international action against Assad, it’s obvious what the Pope was really saying: Stop defending this mass-murdering dictator, plz thx.
We do hope that the two addressed Putin’s plans to make the sex-crazed former Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi the new Russian ambassador to the Vatican, if only to imagine the look on the Pope’s face.